Red Flag: ‘The Americans’ and Humanising the Enemy

Promo still for 'The Americans' courtesy of FX.
[Please note, this post contains spoilers for the FX series, The Americans.]

I recently watched the premier of FX’s period-drama The Americans with great interest, for it boasted a premise that any lover of history would struggle to pass up: set during the Cold War in 1980s America, the show follows the lives of two KGB sleeper spies passing as American citizens ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Philip’.

Further complicating the narrative, these sleepers were forced to marry each other as part of their assignment. The show begins with the couple married for at least fifteen years, having had a teenaged daughter and a preteen son who have no idea who their parents really are. The focus is mostly on the present operations the KGB, factiously, is taking out on America as well as the strain of family dynamics; we learn in flashbacks about the first few encounters of Elizabeth and Philip as they tried to reconcile devotion to their country and a forced devotion to one another.

For example, sex with other people is a standard operative tactic, and interestingly, the struggle Elizabeth and Philip have with the method is not unfaithfulness but that one of them should be wounded in the process. In one episode, Philip is ready to brutalise an informant who has harmed Elizabeth during sex. As an audience, we are persuaded not to examine too closely the tensions created in a scene where Philip’s anger is directed toward her being hurt, not necessarily toward a system of power in which sexual exploitation for service of one’s country is considered normal. Elizabeth’s reaction is not to affirm him as her husband but to affirm the USSR and their mission.

The above scene illustrates in part what, as an American watching The Americans, I find difficult. These moments of humanising create a strange space: why do I feel nervous when Elizabeth later ends up trapped in an FBI parking lot? Why do I feel concern and even hope that she makes it out undetected?

In every way, I am sympathising with the enemy. I have come to see them not only as agents but as people with stories, lives, families, and rootedness. I want them to flourish. I simply forget that such flourishing results in the overthrow of my homeland.

Inversely, we are also privy to the lives of the American agents trying to undermine the USSR’s efforts. They are just as human, just as complicated, navigating the same societal issues and feeling the same tensions in their families. So I extend to them the same desire.

The problem is I want both. I want both to succeed. Or, perhaps basically, I want both to flourish simply as humans.

The Epistle to the Ephesians could perhaps be seen as discourse on inclusive understanding, overturning the view of women and children as property in Greco-Roman household codes, making Jews and Gentiles equal, and saying some radical things about slavery.[1] Take, too, Foucault’s understanding of othering, that we have a tendency to other those we wish to differentiate from.[2]

Perhaps Foucault and Ephesians are pointing us to the complex engagement with human nature that The Americans is navigating: a sense that our enemies are in some ways ourselves.

They are people like us.

If this is true, are we so sure we’re rooting for the right side? Are there any winners here?

Perhaps that is the underlying frustration of The Americans—there is no eschatological hope and, without it, we’re left with the hard task of discerning what is justice or what would be justice. Perhaps it is that America wins. Or perhaps the USSR, even though we know that to be historically untrue. The show does not allow us to consider that both may win. There is no third way. Rather, the political system is locked in its own cycle, a cycle in which sex is used as manipulation in a corrupt system of power. And it keeps going, without end.

Perhaps this is our red flag, our warning, that a circle without God, as the poet Yehuda Amichai once wrote, is a circle in which we will always recognise an almost realised true Gospel myth, but it will nonetheless always fall short of true Gospel justice.[3]

[1] Ephesians 5:21-6:4, 2:11-22; 6:5-9

[2] c.f. James William Bernauer, Michel Foucault and Theology: The Politics of Religious Experience (Famham: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2004)

[3] “The Diameter of the Bomb” by Yehuda Amichai

Preston Yancey is earning his MLitt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from the University of St. Andrews and has accepted a place in the PhD programme for the autumn. He is the author of the popular seePrestonblog and his first book,
A Common Faith: A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again is being written now.

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